“Um, excuse me, I think that’s me by the window,” declared a feminine voice from above.
The man looked up from his magazine to see a young blonde girl standing in the aisle beside him. He sighed as he stood up and moved into the aisle. The girl smiled as she slid by him and into the window seat, placing her bag under the seat in front of her. He returned to his seat and continued reading. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the girl lean over the middle seat and extend her hand.
He looked over and shook her hand. “Jim.”
“Good to meet you,” she said smiling, revealing a mouthful of bleached white teeth.
He mustered a smile before returning to his magazine.
Nikki put her hands in her lap as she looked out the window. She buckled her seat belt and gave it a few tugs. Jim turned the page in his magazine. She went through the magazines and pamphlets in the seat pocket then looked out the window again. She slid the shade up and down.
“Does it usually take this long?”
Jim looked over at her. She turned back to him and grinned nervously.
“Sorry, first time flying.”
He placed his magazine in his lap. “Don’t worry, they’re doing the final checks now.”
Nikki smiled sheepishly.
“See, here comes the flight attendant to do her spiel.” He returned to his magazine as the flight attendant went over the safety guidelines. The plane began to back up and Nikki clutched her armrests. Jim looked over and chuckled.
“Going on vacation?”
Nikki took a deep breath and smiled. “No, I’m starting college. My first year.” She reached into her bag and grabbed a stick of gum. “You travel a lot?”
Jim put the magazine back on his lap. “Yeah, I’m a consultant for a worldwide communications company. They send me all over the world. I’m never in the same place for more than six months.”
She offered him a stick of gum. “You ever get nervous?”
He shook his head as he accepted the gum. “No, I love to fly, gives me a sense of freedom, like I’m in my own little world.”
The plane accelerated, beginning its ascent. Nikki’s knuckles turned white as she clutched the armrests and looked out the window. Jim smiled. “I remember my freshman year of college, some of the best years of my life.” He winks at Nikki. She chuckles. “You know what you want to study?”
“Not really,” she took a deep breath and looked back at Jim, “I think I want to do something with animals, like marine biology. I love dolphins, but I don’t know, I’m no good at science.”
Jim smiled. “Yeah, it took me a while to figure things out. That was my first time away from home.”
“Mine too, I’m pretty nervous.”
“Don’t be. Think of it this way. No one out there knows you. You can be whoever you want. The second we’re in the air, your old life is left behind. Any mistakes you’ve made, any regrets you had, anything. All in the past.”
She looked at him and cocked her head to the side. “I guess I never really thought of it that way.”
“That’s why I travel so often. I love it. Each flight is a new beginning, a second chance. I leave everything behind: friends, family, everything. I take nothing but memories, which fade away and are replaced.” He looked off into space, lost in his speech.
“You don’t miss your family?”
Jim looked back at Nikki. “My parents died long ago. I hardly remember what they look like anymore.”
Nikki’s mouth drops, “What about a wife, or kids?”
He looked off into space again. “My wife left years ago, said she needed stability, couldn’t handle all the traveling. There were no children to fight over. I just packed my bags and started a new life.”
Nikki scowled. “Did you love her?”
“Sure, but that’s all in the past. I’ve moved on.”
“You don’t carry any pictures or anything?”
Jim smiled and looked back at Nikki. “I keep only what’ll fit in my suitcases. I don’t like thinking about the past. I look to the future, the past is always behind me.”
Nikki tucked her hair behind her ear as she shook her head. “What about your first kiss, or your first crush?”
Jim chuckled. “Those things are only temporary. They come and go just like everything else. I’ve had plenty of crushes and plenty of kisses since then. I’m sure I’ll have plenty more. What’s the use in worrying about something that’s not right in front of you?”
Nikki shook her head. “My memories are what make me who I am. I love to look at old pictures and tell stories with old friends. That’s what I think about when I’m alone at night.”
“I mostly just think about what I’m going to do when I get up.”
Nikki rolled her eyes and looked around. The plane had reached its cruising altitude and the flight attendants began to serve drinks.
“Look, we’re in the air now,” Jim added, turning toward her. “We have no more ties to the world below. No cell phones, no Internet, no instant messaging, nothing that we do up here is even noticed by the world below. What’s the point in worrying yourself up here with things you can’t do anything about, like a sick parent, or a lost love, or a dead dog? It’s the same with the past. It’s gone, over. Nothing we do now can change the past.”
By now Nikki had completely forgotten she was on a plane. She turned to face him, crossing her legs, completely engrossed in the discussion. “But what about the war? What if something happens while we’re up here?”
Jim laughed. “They aren’t attacking the skies. They’re attacking the ground. The sky’s the safest place you could be. But, if by some off chance some terrorist does get past all the security and hijacks the plane, I’ve got nothing to lose. No one will worry. No one will mourn.”
“Yeah, and no one will know you ever existed. What’s the point in living if nobody remembers you?” Nikki snapped back with a smirk.
“As long as I’m happy, as long as I’m having fun, I don’t care. Life is in the moment. No one ever became anyone by living in the past.”
Nikki smiled. “So you do want to be remembered?”
“Who doesn’t want to become someone? That’s what the future’s all about, dreaming of possibilities, but you don’t dwell on those dreams. You have to concentrate on right here, right now. You’ll never reach your future if you’re dwelling in the past.”
“Yeah, but if you don’t remember the past, you can’t learn from it.” Her eyes locked in on his.
“You have to remember the lessons you learn, not the past itself.” He held her stare and shot it right back at her.
Nikki shook her head. “Whatever.” She knew she couldn’t convince him. She turned back and looked out the window. Jim smiled and went back to his magazine victorious. The flight attendant pulled up next to him with the drink cart and handed them both some peanuts.
“Would you like something to drink?”
Jim looked over at Nikki. She turned to the flight attendant.
“I’ll just have some apple juice.”
The flight attendant handed Jim a cup of apple juice, which he passed on to Nikki. “I’ll take a rum and Coke,” he said as he handed the flight attendant a five. She gave him his change and his drink and moved down the aisle. Jim turned back to Nikki. “Look, I’m sorry if I upset you. I was just trying to make conversation.”
Nikki smiled at him. “No, don’t worry about it. Thanks for distracting me while we took off.”
“You sure you’re alright?”
“Yeah I’m fine,” she said as she sipped her juice. “It’s a pretty smooth ride now that we’re in the air. Besides, even if you did piss me off, it’s in the past, right?” She looked at him out of the corner of her eye and grinned smugly.
Jim laughed and shook his head as he mixed his drink. She turned back to the window and he picked up his magazine. She stared at the clouds as the world raced by. Everything was so different up there. The world below was hundreds of miles away; the trees and houses were nothing but specks in a patchwork of residential planning zones. The people were nowhere to be seen.
Soon all she could see were clouds, thick, beautiful clouds; white, billowing puffs of heaven. She remembered lying in the grass at the park with her first boyfriend, pointing at the shapes they saw in the clouds above. She remembered playing catch with her brothers in that same park and the day her dad taught her to swing a bat. She wished she could share these memories with her mom.
But she could not. Her mom was not there. Her mom was lost somewhere far below the heavenly blanket. She thought of her mom and the wonderful breakfasts that awaited her every morning before she left for school. She pulled out her cell phone, powered off due to airline regulations, and smiled. She could call her mom the second the plane landed.
For the rest of the flight she flipped through the pictures in her purse, remembering her friends, reliving her childhood, laughing, smiling, dancing around in her mind. She would not let them go. They would never be left behind. They would never die. She would keep them alive in her mind and in her heart. She pulled out a picture of her mother, clutched it in her hands, and stared into her loving eyes. She looked over at Jim reading his magazine, scowled, and turned back to her mother.
As the plane began its descent, the Captain’s voice came on over the intercom.
“Ladies and gentlemen . . . ” He paused for a long time. Nikki looked up in anticipation.
In a shaky voice the captain continued. “We’ve . . . ummm . . . oh, hell.”
Another long pause.
Nikki looked over at Jim, confused.
Jim looked back at her and shrugged.
The intercom clicked back on and the shaky voice continued. “We’ve just received word that there has been a massive strike on the US.”
Nikki gasped. Somebody screamed. A quiet murmur spread among the passengers, which grew into a deafening roar of screams and wailings.
“The reports are all garbled, but from what we understand, most major cities have been completely wiped out.” The Captain paused again. “We don’t have enough fuel to reach one of the surviving cities. We will be landing where the airport used to be.”
Nikki buried her face in her hands and wept uncontrollably. Jim closed his magazine and looked around the plane. The passengers were frantically looking around, crying, whipping out cell phones, and embracing one another in a state of panic. He turned back to his magazine.
The Captain’s voice returned. “Please, do your best to remain calm and keep your seatbelts fastened until we reach the ground.” Another pause. “It could be a shaky landing.”
As the plane descended below the clouds, Nikki’s jaw dropped. There was smoke everywhere. She could not believe it. Everything was in ruin. Buildings were toppled, houses were engulfed in flame, and huge craters dotted the earth. The airport was no more. She looked at the man next to her. Jim just stared on, reading his magazine.
The plane landed and came to a halt, but no one moved. The flight attendants were in a daze. The passengers just sat staring out the window, crying. The fasten seatbelt light went off. After a minute, Jim looked around, jumped up, grabbed his luggage, and opened the emergency exit. The slide deployed and he exited the plane. The rest of the passengers followed reluctantly after him, walking slowly and carefully, unsure of what to do, sniffling all the way. The flight attendants remained lost in their daze.
As the passengers exited the plane, they stared blankly. Nobody could believe it. It had finally happened. The society they knew was no more. They wandered aimlessly around the outside of the plane, staring at the sky, kicking the dust with their feet, crying.
Nikki looked around for someone she knew, anyone she could talk to, anyone who could make sense of this thing. She saw Jim at the edge of a crater off in the distance. His luggage was hanging from his shoulder. He dragged one bag behind him. He kept walking, looking forward, without even a glance behind him. He had already started a new life.
A tear began to fall down her cheek. She looked down at the picture of her mother still in her hands, stared deeply into her mother’s eyes, fell to her knees, and wept.